by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
Over the years, we’ve brought scores of accomplished men and women to visit students in our leadership programs. Most of these men and women—businesspeople, policy makers, lawyers and public servants—come with some specific public concern or policy dilemma to discuss. But we always ask them to also talk about their lives, to recount how they have navigated their paths to success. These conversations matter immensely because too many of our students discount the uncertain and contingent character of successful trajectories, mistakenly assuming that the contours of a successful end are evident from the start. In making that mistake, they take themselves out of the picture, imagining that no road leads from where they are to where they want to be.
During these conversations, however, students will far more often hear stories of chance encounters or risky decisions that lead to some exciting but unforeseen possibility. Missteps in one direction can lead to fortuitous ventures in another, and uncertain initial overtures, in time, acquire purpose and momentum. The takeaway message for our students should be that successful people do not immediately find their way, and they are not always on the right track.
But I often wonder if this message is truly resonant for students. A world of difference, after all, separates the tingle of uncertainty a romantic comedy evokes en route to its inevitable Hollywood conclusion, and the indeterminacy of someone agonizing in real life over whether they’ll ever find love. I also suspect that upon hearing stories told in retrospect, students imagine that key moments and opportunities in life will shine like jewels in the road, easily sighted and scooped up.
The first step in any leadership curriculum is to undermine both of these misimpressions. The ends of the best stories are never evident in their beginnings, and the most accomplished lives are seldom preordained for success. When somebody says I never knew I had it in me, we must believe them—and use that belief as a bulwark against the notion that leaders begin with—rather than grow into—greatness.
Furthermore, the richest, most rewarding opportunities rarely come outlined in neon. When talking with our students, so many of our speakers allowed themselves to pause and wonder aloud: What if I hadn’t answered that call, accepted that offer or decided to strike out on my own? How could I have known what would follow from this prescient decision, or that one?
The answer, of course, is that we can never know. Our lives are made up of strategy and fortune, planned results, and unintended consequences. We can never know where a new job, a new acquaintance, a new opportunity will lead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t shorten the odds.
Cultivating a watchful, restless, and relentless sense of agency profoundly shortens the odds on success. The person who walks into a room attuned to its possibilities; who moves through a conversation, a program, or an organization alive with purpose; who is alert to surprising and unlooked for possibilities, will be far ahead of the game. Teaching young people to ask of every important situation, What is expected of me? What do I want and how best can I achieve it? sets them on the path to strategizing the connection between a vision for the future and a plan to get there. It enables further questions about how they can acquire the skills necessary to reach a goal, meet the people who will help shape their vision of the future, and find a way into conversations that matter.
Most roads toward this sense of agency begin with a set of basic questions, relentlessly repeated:
Why? Why am I making this choice? Why am I in this room, taking this class, pursuing this internship?
What? What do I want from this moment, this opportunity, this person, this internship? What is the relationship between where I am today, and where I want to be? What will make me get up in the morning next week, next year, and for the next three decades?
How? How do I acquire the skills necessary to get there? How do I engage this person in front of me, or this class, or this program?
For many people, unreflective and passive answers to these questions have much to do with inertia: Today I’m doing pretty much what I did yesterday. Today I’m following through on a decision I made months or years ago. Today I’m more or less enacting a role I accepted years ago.
Putting inertia to the test should be the lifeblood of an education—and we should be prepared to test ourselves in this respect throughout life. While in college, many students live transient, liminal lives: caught, in the best possible sense, between what they have been and what they wish to be. What can be less helpful to such an existence than inertia, than the sense of purpose rooted in some distant, unexamined occupation? It’s a challenge to escape this state, of course, because an inert life has the comfort of constant familiarity. But if we don’t ask ourselves, our students, and our colleagues, every day What do I want? Why are you here? How will we accomplish it? we will drive education toward mere certification.
We don’t need a program to ask those questions—we need instead to commit to an inquiring disposition, to make the daily examination of purpose and strategy part of our routine. If the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership is to provide a way forward for 2,600 students each year, then let that path begin with a set of questions, ceaselessly repeated, and with the meaningful discussions that will follow any genuine attempts to answer them.